Thursday, August 28, 2014

Biddah, biddah, biddah

I’m a terrible gambler…in the traditional sense. When it comes to entrepreneurship, I’m a total risk taker. But when it comes to lotteries, slots, etc., it’s never been my thing. For years I had a client in Las Vegas and I’d spend 2 or 3 days a week there. It took me nearly 18 months to play a slot – and then it was the penny slot for about 5 minutes or less than a dollar. When the mega-lotteries hit the $100 million jackpots, then I’ll play. On eBay I’m more apt to “buy it now” than to bid. Auctions are a staple of the fundraising circuit, just as bad food and long speeches are. Television has popularized the auction process with Storage Wars and its various clones. Having people compete to buy something, or to donate is relatively harmless and many find it entertaining. Providing a cash prize for voting? That just seems like a bad idea, but it’s exactly what Los Angeles is considering. 

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission recommended that the City Council consider a cash-prize drawing as an incentive to vote. Less than 20% of registered voters show up for municipal elections, so some fresh thinking is in order. There’s another 30 to 35% of the population that is eligible to vote, but isn’t even registered, which would bring the participation rate in LA to below 15%. Winners are then determined by just 8% of the population they’re serving.

I love Los Angeles – its sprawl, its opportunities, its diversity, and, yes, even its traffic. (MUCH preferable over Boston traffic which just stops.) Mayor Richard Riordan did a lot of extraordinary things for the city, getting it back on track after the Earthquake and Bush (41) Recession. One of the worst things he had to compromise on was allowing the creation of Neighborhood Councils in the City Charter revision that was approved and took hold in 2000.

Los Angeles – the city not the county – is home to 4 million people. That is larger than 27 other states in population.  It is governed by a Mayor and 15 City Council members who each have a district they represent. The 2000 City Charter clarified the roles of the legislative and executive branches – a wholesale improvement over the prior system which had a very weak governing system. But to pass the changes, the Charter also introduced the concept of Neighborhood Councils. According to the city: “The goal of the Neighborhoods Councils is to promote public participation in City governance and decision-making process to create a government more responsive to local needs.”

There are 95 Neighborhood Councils. Can you imagine Kentucky, Connecticut or Nevada (all states with smaller populations than LA) having to deal with 95 councils participating in the decision-making process with their legislatures? They each have their own budget, their own elections, their own agendas. There’s even an organizing alliance with staff to support them. It’s not chaos – it’s just ineffective. Much of the work that they do replicates what a City Council office should do – working directly with constituents. Moving anything legislatively takes eons as it has to go through this labyrinth of connectivity with the neighborhood councils.

The idea is nice – people would participate with local government if it was local and part of their neighborhood. The more people participate, then the more engaged they are. The more engaged and the higher likelihood that come election time, more people will exercise their civic responsibility. The reality after nearly 15 years is that it hasn’t increased participation. Many of these neighborhood councils are dormant, scrambling to fill positions or having people keep their roles for years and year. The participation rate of elections is so low that the Ethics Committee thought a lottery would be the ideal way to boost the engagement that having micro-localized government was intended to do. With that thinking, we might as well put up elections to the highest bidder. Oh, wait...

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